Here in Texas, it’s been a busy couple of days already for my project team. Rachel and I are working with the Cameron County Department of Health and Human Services to evaluate public acceptance of a smoke-free ordinance that was implemented in the city of Brownsville last month. It’s an interesting project for a few reasons. First, the smoke-free ordinance, which bans smoking in all restaurants and bars, is the first of its kind in Cameron County, which means that the results of our project will be of great interest to policymakers in Brownsville and in the county as a whole. Second, we’ve had the opportunity to work with the local health department to conduct some on-the-ground fieldwork, implementing our survey with people who actually frequent the bars and restaurants that the ordinance affects.
This second factor is particularly important because one of the central tenets of public health practice that I’ve learned over the past few years is that you have to meet people where they are. What this means is that whether you’re providing health education, implementing a public health intervention, assessing support for a particular policy option, or simply collecting data, the only way to achieve success is to truly engage with the community. And the only way to truly engage with the community is to approach it with an open mind.
And that’s how I found myself at 7:00 pm on Monday night of spring break, in a bar in Brownsville, Texas, asking people how they felt about the recent smoking ban.
As a student in health management and policy, I do a lot of thinking and writing about public health policy. In fact, I happened to write a paper on smoke-free ordinances for a class last semester – entirely by coincidence. As a result, I hold a lot of strong opinions on topics like smoking bans (and you can probably guess what side I fall on). But one of the things I love about conducting fieldwork is that it forces me to put aside what I think, to listen to what people are telling me, and – whether I agree with it personally or not – to report it and respond to it honestly as a public health practitioner. And I think I’ve succeeded when people feel comfortable answering my survey questions with complete honesty – and are still unfailingly polite to me even though we both know that we violently disagree with each other.
I’ll be as interested as Cameron County is to see what the data from our survey shows at the end of this week. In the meantime, I’m grateful for the opportunity to work with local health, talk to the community, get to know the area, and meet these people where they are.